A Christian-based mentoring program offered at several Beaufort County public schools is an “egregious constitutional violation,” according to a national nonprofit organization that works to protect the constitutional separation between church and state.
In a letter sent to Beaufort County schools superintendent Jeff Moss last week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the district to terminate its relationship with Real Champions of the Lowcountry, an organization of volunteers that mentored roughly 100 district students last school year, according to co-founder Carl Martin.
Martin said he became aware of the foundation’s letter to the district Thursday and said the voluntary program allows students to spend 30 minutes per week before school or during recess with a mentor, learning non-academic behaviors and attitudes. Mentors have worked with district students for at least 10 years, according to Martin.
“We have the Bible and Scriptures available as a tool,” he said. “It’s not like a sermon. We’re not proselytizing (to) children to go to one church at all.”
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That’s not how Patrick Elliott, senior counsel for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sees it.
“The partnership between a religious mentorship program and the Beaufort County School District impermissibly advances religion, communicates a message of school district endorsement of religion and excessively entangles the school district and religion,” he wrote in a letter to Moss that was sent by email and mail Oct. 31.
Protecting the confidentiality of his client, Elliott declined to name the parent who approached the Wisconsin-based organization for assistance.
Elliott’s letter only identified Real Champions in place at Okatie Elementary, though Real Champion’s lead mentor Walter Wheeler said the group worked with six additional district schools — Michael C. Riley Elementary, Red Cedar Elementary, Bluffton Elementary, Pritchardville Elementary, H.E. McCracken Middle School and Bluffton Middle — last school year. A head count for this school year is not yet available.
The group also mentors at Hardeeville Elementary, which is part of Jasper County School District, Wheeler added.
While individual schools set up their own mentoring programs, district spokesman Jim Foster said the district is in the process of speaking with Real Champions to ensure both the district and the organization are complying with the law.
Speaking generally about the district’s mentoring programs, Foster said mentors are “very valuable and helpful with students.”
Asked if Freedom From Religion Foundation intends to sue the district, Elliott said, “We would consider that.”
But that course of action depends on the district’s response, he said. As of Wednesday, Elliott said he was still waiting to hear from Moss.